On April 13, MGMT will officially release its long awaited sophomore album entitled “Congratulations,” which is described by its band members as containing “no singles.” After hearing the album, which was made available on the band’s website in free streaming format, I would have to say that they certainly didn’t lie.
The nine-song album as a whole is artistically a tour de force and a definitive evolution for the band, but many listeners will be disappointed. There is nothing on the album that in any way is like its predecessor “Oracular Spectacular,” which was noted for its charming psychedelic pop tunes such as “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids.” The album sounds like a haphazard assemblage of early 60s sounds, dream rock, psychedelic opera, rhapsodic rock and folk. There is no other way to describe the album though without enumerating and musically analyze each song, which I will try to do.
The first song is “It’s Working” which is the closest thing they have to a pop song. The opening of the piece is a blend of some of the prototypical jauntiness of the early 1960s music, as seen in bands like Manfred Mann and the Loving Spoonful, and the Beatles post-1967. The structure of the piece, which is similar to rondo form, is fairly innovative for a “pop” piece and has hardly any parallels, with the possible exception of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police.
Their second song, “Song For Dan Treacy,” is an odd homage to an obscure member of an even more obscure band called The Television Personalities. The song has the chromaticism and organ sounds of The Doors circa their “Soft Parade” period. The piece is fairly underwhelming though and one of the worst on the album. It does help define the lack of cohesion and the rhapsodic facets that define the later parts of the album.
This is followed by a relatively upbeat “pop” song, called “Someone’s Missing,” that starts out like something from The Shins’ first album “Oh Inverted World.” It progresses into an echo-chambered buffet of 1970s sounds that give us the feeling that the piece could be sung on the Midnight Special.
“Flash Delirium,” the album’s first released single, as it’s grudgingly called, is possibly the oddest and least charming piece. It sounds like a blend of a less accessible version of the Doors and a version of Queen without the flamboyance and pomp. The cadence changes of the end are the most rewarding part of the piece but it fails as a rhapsody and as a single.
The song is a distant relative of the next song on the album, “I Found a Whistle,” which begins with the all too familiar I-vi-IV-iv chord progression in a warbling electronic form that brings us back to the sound of “Kids” or something off their prior album. The piece works though with its familiar song structure and catchy chorus and is a highlight of the album.
“Siberian Breaks” starts with an acoustic prelude that is blend of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Royksopp, and easy listening music with its melancholic Imaj7-IVmaj7 chord progression. The piece attempts to be folk trance but the latter part of it verges on an echoed amalgam of the band Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Incredible String Band.
Their most critically praised song is another homage piece called “Brian Eno.” A notable feature of it is that it fails to establish any modality or tonic until the ending section but this is what makes the piece a success. With all of the prior subtlety that is a staple of the album, they start with a sound like Iron Butterfly and end in a romp that is as psychedelic pop and circus music in its purest blend, without any calliopes.
“Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” a halfway homage to the Lady Gaga as VanWyngarden states, is the only instrumental piece of the album. Nothing is more 1980s trance than this song – it feels like something out of the film “Xanadu” but without any friendly cadences or consistent key signature. If you gave the “Saucerful of Secrets” version of Pink Floyd some more acid, you would get the kind of sound featured in this song.
Their last song on their eponymous album, “Congratulations,” is as close to a psychedelic folk piece as one can get. There are some similarities to the sounds of Donovan and other late 1960s rockers but the piece itself retains a uniqueness that is a hallmark of the MGMT sound. As a conclusion to the album it’s rather weak but it is catchy enough to keep the album in our minds, ready for the future listening experience it deserves.
It’s safe to say that the band will lose many fans with this next step in their artistic growth, but if the work is as good as I think it is then it will expand the boundaries of contemporary rock and pop and bring those deserters back. Remember when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s and ceased touring, many fans thought they had lost them, but their evolution proved to be the best thing for them musically. If you have to know the rating, I’d say “Congratulations” deserves a B+, but the best thing I can say is go out and hear it for yourself.